Week of 19 January 2009
Update: Sunday, 25 January 2009 09:40 -0500
- Barbara is off for MLKJ Day. We got a fair number of images shot yesterday, and we'll shoot more today.
Monday and Tuesday newspapers now have only two sections. Barbara
handed me the second section this morning, which has the sports and
comics. The headline on the front page said that the Cardinals and
Steelers were going to the Super Bowl. I was surprised when Barbara
mentioned Arizona. I thought the Cardinals were in St. Louis. I was
even more surprised to learn that Los Angeles had moved to St.
Louis. At least Pittsburgh is where it always was. I think.
- This list of proposed "science" fair topics
for Christian home school kids is representative of what we as a
civilization are up against. Now, you might think that this is just one
particularly stupid list from one particularly ignorant local group of
so-called "creation scientists". Unfortunately, it's pretty
representative of how these people think, if what they do can even
be described as thinking. They do understand one thing, that science
and their religious beliefs are fundamentally incompatible, and so they
are determined to destroy science.
If it were just their own
children that they were working to corrupt, that'd be bad enough. But
the goal of these people and thousands of others across the county is
to eliminate science in public school classrooms and teach this crap in
its stead. They tried the head-on approach. That failed dismally, so
now they repeatedly try different back-door methods. Fortunately,
courts have consistently ruled that "creation science", "intelligent
design", and all their other back-door attempts to force religion into
science classrooms violate the separation of church and state
provisions of the Constitution. But they keep trying to sneak this crap
into public school classrooms under other names.
no mistake. These people are wackaloons, but it would be a huge mistake
to dismiss them as harmless nutters. Nutters they are, but they're
anything but harmless. They are well-funded, well-organized, and there
are a lot of them. They have the sympathetic ears of many legislators
at the local and state level. They won't be satisfied until the war is
over and science has lost. We need to fight them. We can't give an inch.
- I was sorry to learn last week that O'Reilly Media has laid off 30 people,
about 14% of its staff. That must have been a very painful decision for
Tim and the rest of O'Reilly's executive group. I don't yet know
which of my friends there have lost their jobs, but I'm sure some of
those I've worked with over the years must be among that unfortunate
I'm not employed by O'Reilly and have no inside
information about their business, but I suspect the root of the problem
is simply that books don't sell like they used to. Oh, there are some
titles that sell in huge numbers, and no doubt there are more
bestsellers as yet unpublished, but the average book sells a lot fewer
copies than it did ten years ago, or even five. And, ultimately, it's
the average that matters more than the occasional bestseller. O'Reilly
no doubt beats the averages, but a falling tide lowers all boats.
Publishing must be a scary business to be in right now. I know that's
true of being a freelance author.
The crash of the economy is
certainly a major factor, but declining book sales predate that. The
Internet is both the problem and the potential solution. It's the
problem because in some ways it's a direct replacement for a book.
Why buy a book when you can find the information you need with Google,
instantly and for free? A decade ago, I used books and other printed
matter for 95% of my research and the Internet for 5%. Nowadays,
the percentages are reversed. And I'm by no means alone. A decade ago,
if you visited the office or cubicle of a network manager or
programmer, you'd have found shelves and shelves of well-thumbed
technical books. Visit the same office today, and you'll likely find at
most a few lonely books in need of a good dusting. Network managers and
programmers, like everyone else nowadays, find most of the information
they need on the web.
But the Internet is also the solution.
Fundamentally, a printed book is just one way of packaging information,
a way that is increasingly obsolescent. O'Reilly is full of smart
people, and I suspect they're fully aware that they're not really
in the book publishing business. They're in the information delivery
business. Ask just about any of O'Reilly's customers about O'Reilly,
and they'll tell you that O'Reilly publishes top-notch technical books.
But what they're really saying is that O'Reilly publishes top-notch
technical information. And I'm sure O'Reilly realizes the truth of that
statement. The challenge for O'Reilly over the coming years will be to
adapt to the senescence of books by replacing them with new
Internet-based delivery methods, and to monetize those delivery methods.
challenge will be accommodating changing serving sizes. Just as the
music industry has had to deal with the death of album sales because
everyone now buys individual tracks, book publishers must begin to
think in terms of packaging and selling information in smaller
chunks. This disaggregation has a lot of implications on both the
revenue and cost sides. Just as music fans no longer have to pay for an
entire album to get the one or two tracks they really want, information
fans will no longer have to pay for an entire book to get the one or
two chapters they really want.
As to the implications for me,
I'm still thinking them through. This home forensics lab book may be
the last one I write. My future efforts may be devoted to creating
chapter-size chunks of useful information that can be sold
independently. One thing is for sure. It's going to be an interesting
2009 and beyond.
Wednesday, 21 January 2009
- More on what some are describing as the "Seagate fiasco".
The new firmware update, SD1A, has been withdrawn. It apparently
"bricks" some 500 GB Barracuda 7200.11 models, and possibly others.
There's a post on /. from someone who claims to be a Seagate employee posting anonymously, and it sounds credible to me.
you have one of the affected drives (I have three 1.5 TB units with the
SD17 firmware in my main system), my advice is to keep your data fully
backed up and just wait to see what happens over the next week or two.
I suspect Seagate will get a patched firmware update released sometime
in the next several days. When that happens, I intend to wait a few
days to see if there are any reports of problems with the new firmware
before I install it on my own drives.
I have a conference call with some of the folks at O'Reilly/MAKE coming
up in a couple hours. We'll do it by ordinary telephone, but every time
I have a conference call I think about installing Skype. I dislike
Skype for a lot of reasons, but it's useful sometimes, and the video
support is nice.
The problem with the video support is that it
stopped working for me about 18 months ago, when I gave my old
webcam to Mary Chervenak to take with her on her around-the-world run.
I replaced it with a new Logitech model, which unfortunately wasn't
supported by the version of Linux I was running at the time. Getting it
working was never a high priority, so for 18 months I've had that
webcam sitting on top of my display. When I upgraded the display on my
main system to the 22" Viewsonic VX2255WMB, I had hopes that I'd be
able to use the webcam built into that display. No joy, and again after
playing with it for an hour or two I decided to stop wasting time and
wait to see if a new version of Linux would support it.
interim, I've done two or three Kubuntu/Ubuntu upgrades. Each time, I
looked at Device Manager to see if either of the webcams was
recognized. Each time, they weren't. I hadn't checked since I upgraded
to Ubuntu 8.10 over Thanksgiving, so this morning I decided to check.
No joy. Nothing showing up in Device Manager for either webcam.
time, I decided to go a bit further, so I started searching Google to
see if there was a workaround to get one or the other of my webcams
working. I was surprised to see that a lot of people had them working
without having done any special tweaking. One of the messages mentioned
connecting a USB cable from the VX2255WMB to a USB port on the
I looked behind the display. Sure enough, there
was no USB cable leading from the display to the USB hub. Nor was the
standalone Logitech webcam connected to my computer. That really cuts
down on the throughput. I apparently disconnected both webcams at some
point and then forgot they were disconnected. I installed a USB cable
from the display to my USB hub, and the built-in webcam started working
immediately. Now all I have to decide is whether I really want to
install Skype on my main system.
Thursday, 22 January 2009
I'm working on the last two lab sessions for the forensics book, on DNA
extraction and analysis by gel electrophoresis. That last one is
difficult, because there are so many variables and so many minor
missteps that can cause the results to be unusable. I'll get it worked
- Here's another Darwin Award candidate.
Apparently, it never occurred to this woman that it was a bad idea to
keep an 18-foot (5.5 meter), 325 pound (148 kilo) python in the same
apartment with her 3-year-old child. Duh. The kid survived; the snake
And, speaking of snakes, Barbara was sorting through
some boxes of old photographs and found this one of me about 25 years
ago, holding Ethel, who was our guard-snake at the time.
I'm working on the final lab session for the forensics book, on DNA gel
electrophoresis. Getting decent results at a reasonable price turns out
to be very challenging. For example, I'd like to use agarose gel, but
agarose isn't cheap. You can buy it in large quantities for maybe 75
cents a gram, but in smaller quantities it typically sells for $2 to $3
per gram. Depending on the size of the gel, one gel may require a gram
or so of agarose, and I want to run multiple gels.
So agarose is
out, but there aren't a lot of good alternatives. I was going to use
ordinary unflavored gelatin, but it turns out not to work very well.
It's too weak, too sticky, and too porous. I've settled on using agar
agar, which is a mixture of agarose and other components, but is at
least cheap and readily available.
Saturday, 24 January
When the built-in humidifier on our furnace failed a few years ago, the
furnace maintenance guy told us we'd be crazy to replace it. (I just
love technicians; they tell the truth regardless.) He suggested buying
a standalone unit, which he said was unlikely to have problems and put
a lot more water into the air than the built-in unit on the furnace. So
we bought one, and it's worked fine for several years.
we noticed that the relative humidity in the house was down to 44% and
that the humidifier wasn't using much water despite the fan running
continuously. So this morning I pulled the top off of it and looked at
the four folded paper wicks that draw the water from the reservoir up
into the air current from the fan. The tops of all four were rigid,
encrusted with deposits. I thought about soaking them in dilute
hydrochloric acid, but I decided to soak them in the sink in hot water
first. That seems to have worked. There are still stains, but the parts
that were rock solid and rigid are now soft and flexible. I'm going to
reinstall them reversed, with what had been the top on the bottom. I
suspect they'll work fine for several more years.
And I got to
thinking about what's been going on in that reservoir. For several
years, during heating season, I've been adding tap water to it,
typically between 2.5 gallons and 5 gallons (9.5 L to 19 L) per day.
About 1 in 6400 hydrogen atoms is actually a deuterium atom. Heavy
water, D2O or HDO, has a slightly lower vapor pressure than ordinary
water, which means that for several years I've been adding water, say
5,000 gallons by this point, selectively evaporating regular water from
the reservoir, and leaving the remaining liquid slightly enriched in
deuterium for each pass. There's about a gallon in the reservoir now,
which is the residue of 5,000 gallons of regular water. I may take a
specimen of what's left in the reservoir, distill it, and see if the
density is detectably higher than that of ordinary distilled water.
Back when I was a teenager, I had several DC power supplies on my
bench. I wish I still had them. I'm working on DNA gel electrophoresis,
and I really need some kind of inexpensive, readily available DC power
supply. The usual solution for doing gel electrophoresis at home is to
use several 9V transistor batteries wired in series to provide anything
from 27VDC to 90VDC or more. The problem with that is that 9V batteries
aren't cheap. They run $2 to $3 each, and depending on your setup you
may get only one or two gels run with your stack of four or five
batteries. That starts to add up fast.
Within pretty a broad
range, you can trade off voltage for time in gel electrophoresis. For
example, a gel that takes 30 minutes to run at 54VDC may take several
hours at half that voltage. Presumably, at some point the voltage is
insufficient to drag the DNA fragments through the gel at anything more
than a glacier-like pace, but I'm not sure what the realistic lower
limit is. I'm going to borrow my neighbor's automobile trickle charger
and see what happens at 13.8VDC. If that works, even if it takes
several hours to run a gel, that's fine. Most of my readers will
probably be able to beg or borrow a trickle charger if they don't
already have one. If not, they can use batteries.
But what I'd
really like is a cheap DC power supply, ideally variable voltage, that
readers could use to run gels. It shouldn't require any soldering or
other tweaking. That's a pretty unreasonable set of requirements, I
know. In fact, I'd be willing to settle for just about anything in the
fixed range of perhaps 24VDC to 60VDC. I'm hoping there's something
obvious that I've missed. If there is, please let me know.
Barbara was complaining about our phone bill yesterday, which is up to
$40/month. We make almost no long distance calls, and I was outraged to
find that the 10-10-297 service that we'd been using has apparently
instituted a minimum monthly charge of $7.50. So, in November we made
one long-distance call that lasted 1 minute and were charged $7.50 for
it. BellSouth has become AT&T, and our monthly basic phone bill has
now increased to $20, not counting all the taxes and fees. Enough is
I spent an hour or so last night looking at VoIP
services. Barbara's sister has the Time-Warner digital phone service,
and it sucks, not to mention being extremely expensive. Barbara pulled
out the current issue of Consumer Reports, which had a report
on phone services. I was surprised to see Vonage highly rated, until I
realized that they were comparing it against TWC and other cable
companies' services. I checked on line for sites that compare 3rd party
VoIP services, and of course found that Vonage was among the worst of
them according to the customer reviews.
Of course, the problem
with these sites is that it's never obvious which are in fact
independent. One or two of them are apparently funded by VoIP
companies, and the anonymous "reviews" on some of them sound like they
were written by the VoIP companies being reviewed. As usual, the bad
reviews can usually be trusted, although many of those were apparently
a result of bad experiences that weren't really the fault of the VoIP
provider in question. I mean, you can really blame the VoIP company if
you hook up their terminal adapter behind the router instead of in
front of it and then find that voice quality goes down when you start
sucking down a video torrent.
After fishing through the piles of
reviews and other material, I came up with two or three possibilities.
One of them got excellent reviews, but when I checked the BBB site it
turned out that their record was unacceptable, with numerous complaints
unresolved or even unresponded to. So I ruled them out. The one I keep
coming back to is Phone Power,
which has a decent BBB rating and mostly good reviews from users. I'm
inclined to give them a try on their month-to-month plan. If that works
out, I may go with their prepaid annual plan, which costs a total of
about $250 up front for two years' service. Of course, they could go
belly-up next month, which makes that risky.
If you use a VoIP service and have any recommendations from hard-won experience, I'd appreciate hearing them.
I got email from Bob Walder this morning. He was one of the early
members of the daynotes blog group, but stopped blogging some years
ago. He's back with a new blog. Check it out.
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